The Evolution of Providence Cafe Eatery becomes a true neighborhood place BY TRICIA CHILDRESS In November 1992 Providence Cafe, owned by Harding Stowe and designed by Don Ellis, opened in Myers Park. This stunning facility brought people into the dining room to admire the exquisite design. The bar area in those early years was always packed and was "the" place to be seen. In 1992, the primary spots for dinner were on East Boulevard in Dilworth and a short track along Providence Road in Myers Park. Restaurants were just starting to open downtown. Even though Providence Cafe had been designed to be a neighborhood restaurant, people expected more. They expected cutting edge cuisine to match the cutting edge interior design. After all, Providence Cafe was smack dab in the middle of our toniest zip code and at that time, Charlotte did not have many state-of-the-culinary-art restaurants in town. Critics were disappointed by the food. Then the owner spun off two siblings: Providence Bistro in the university area and another Providence Bistro in Ballantyne. A neighborhood restaurant is cozy and comfortable, one which has not been cloned, but has been built to reflect the neighborhood in design and taste. It is the place where a few items on the menu become favorites and regulars will protest vehemently if these items are scuttled. But most of all, it is the place you can walk to, and into, knowing you will run into people you know. Ten years in the life of a restaurant is a long one and any restaurant which can stay in business for 10 years, obviously has a formula to succeed. During the past decade Providence Cafe has had its ups and downs. Just over a year ago, in November 2001, Stowe sold his interest in the 220-seat Providence Cafe to Don Both, a former manager at Harper's and Mimosa Grille. (Another of Stowe's restaurants, Providence Bistro in the University area, has also been sold.) Both says, "When I moved to Charlotte nine years ago, one of my goals was to open a restaurant. My ideal restaurant was a neighborhood restaurant with an inviting environment." Bingo. Providence Cafe is as inviting as ever. Don Ellis did a commendable job of producing an interior which is still fresh in 2002. Sure the carpets and upholstery have been changed, but the interior, which has the perfect marriage of form and function not often found in restaurants, is classic. The menu was created by Executive Chef David Withee. Some of the items on the menu show a Polynesian influence reflecting Withee's previous port of call when he trained with Sam Choy at Hotel King Kamamaha in Hawaii. The lunch, dinner, and brunch menus are changed twice a year, but half of the items remain constant. The wine list, which is primarily West Coast, has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. One of the challenges for Withee in this landlocked city has been procuring reliable sources for fish. While in Hawaii he participated in night dives to retrieve clawless lobsters which he would then serve to his customers. The rest of the fish he bought from boats docked in front of the hotel. On his menu at Providence Cafe, the grilled yellowfin entree has a Polynesian lean with the sweetness of a honey tamari glaze and jasmine rice cake tempered by a crispy slaw. The sashimi katsu starter is spiked with the eclectic sounding wasabi ginger beurre blanc. Vegetable bundles on the appetizer list distinguish themselves with a healthy dash of fresh tasting goat cheese and honey walnut vinaigrette. The best of what we had was the predictable prime rib which is served in small and large portions. Providence Cafe is a place to linger. The servers are exceptional and allow you time. Enjoy sharing the enormous cappuccino ice cream pie with a couple of expressos. Providence Cafe has finally become what it always should have been: a neighborhood place. You will not have a gastronomic epiphany here, but you will find a gorgeous dining room with an easygoing atmosphere, professional servers, and comfortable food.